Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged 󈥴th centure literature’

Am reading a ton at the moment, and loving the feel of a brain alive. On the serious side of things, I started reading Susan Sontag’s collection Against Interpretation. I have only read bits and pieces of Sontag over the last ten years or so, I’ve never concentrated on her work in a systematic way and so begins a nice journey through her brilliant and critical mind.

From her essay “On Style” I’ve been highlighting left and right, but the following phrases/sections have stayed with me now for a few days:

“Art is seduction, not rape.”

“A work of art is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness; its object is to make something singular explicit.” (I love this. I have been repeating this to myself over and over.)

“Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, know that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.”

On the sillier side of things, I received a gift in the mail yesterday. Ella Frances Sanders’ Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.

This book, which is both funny and profound, is the way to a translator’s heart.

Here are some I love:

COMMUOVERE (Italian) – v. To be moved in a heartwarming way, usually relating to a story that moved you to tears.

MÅNGATA (Swedish) – n. The road-like reflection of the moon in the water.

KOMOREBI (Japanese) – n. The sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees.

MAMIHLAPINATAPAI (Yaghan). n. A silent acknowledgement and understanding between two people, who are both wishing or thinking the same thing (and both unwilling to initiate).

You can see more about this book here.


Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones (tr. Lloyd Jones) was my book group’s selection for this month. It is tiny – just about 150 pages – although it contains a full life history and in many ways could be considered a family saga. As the title suggests, it is the story of a woman named Rebecca Jones, born in 1905 in the small Welsh valley of Maesglasau. Rebecca is our narrator and she tells of each of her six siblings – five boys and another girl. Only five of these seven lived to adulthood, her four brothers and herself. A particularity of this family is that three of her brothers were blind, two from birth and the third losing his sight as a teenager.

The focus of this short novel is on family, on notions of home and duty and long-term relationships to the land and one’s origins. Rebecca takes care of each brother as he is born, of her parents as they age, of her brothers’ families as they grow. Theirs is a rural life and she goes into great detail of the work that must be done on their farm and their connection to the other farmers and the nearby villages. It is a book that lovingly describes what it must have been like to live in rural Wales across the span of the 20th century. I found the discussions of language fascinating, as her blind brothers were schooled in England and had to learn to negotiate their bilingualism and their Welsh-ness.

I will admit right away that while I enjoyed reading this story, it isn’t a book that set off any immediate readerly explosions for me. I often prefer a less straightforward kind of storytelling, and much of the book is composed of exposition detailing the history and daily lives of each of the book’s characters. It doesn’t read – at least not all of the time – like a novel. At the same time, there is quite a bit of poetry mixed throughout, examples of verse from the famous Welsh poet Hugh Jones for one, but also each chapter opens with a lyrical portrait of the region or a kind of prologue in a style much different from the actual storytelling. This was an interesting structure, to put these two starkly different styles in juxtaposition, instead of telling the entire story in a more blended combination of the two.

Something I did find very beautiful came toward the end of the book, when Rebecca writes about the fact that she was never able to leave home and yet she yearned for foreign travel. Instead she travels the world over a series of months by using a local library and its books to see the things she has always wanted to see.

I cannot remember how long I spent travelling. Whether it was days, weeks, months, I cannot say. It was a time of sweet enthralment, and for the first time in my life I felt carefree. I was away for so long I forgot about home.

I think most readers will find a lovely truth in these passages. How books can take you away from yourself but also become an inseparable part of you. How they change and liberate you.

The frame of the book is that Rebecca Jones is at the end of her life and looking back over her experiences, telling us of her “self”. Using this frame, which becomes more pronounced at the very end of the book, she engages in a short discussion on memory:

I sometimes think that the act of remembering life gives more pleasure than living itself. We can select, delete, amplify, recreate, interpret memories. But life itself is unpredictable and unruly. Certain things can be recalled at will; others thrown into the bottomless pit of forgetting. We can choose when to laugh and to cry; when to challenge and to submit. Such is the privilege of remembering.

This particular passage goes on then to mean something else by the time you hit the very last page of the book – in which a large surprise awaits the reader. I have mixed feelings about the surprise (mixed feelings which have more to do with my looking at the book as a writer who is somewhat obsessed with structure and how structure affects meaning), but it adds an interesting layer of metafiction to this very short novel, and does make the book so much more than a family history.

Finally, both the Afterword and the Translator’s Note invited me to look back over The Life of Rebecca Jones and consider it from a few different angles. The translation angle interests me the most, especially because the book was originally published in 2002 and apparently for a long time people thought it might be impossible to translate. That is fascinating to me because of the expository parts of the book and how stark I found the contrast between those sections and the poetic interludes. It made me wonder how easily the Welsh was rendered into English, and if in the original these two sections were more blended.

Overall – and this is the best part of any good book – it has made me very curious to read further into translated Welsh fiction. Any suggestions?

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is the fourth Barbara Comyns novel that I’ve read. I started with Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, then went to The Vet’s Daughter and after that read The Juniper Tree. My reading of her has been completely haphazard, dictated mostly by which book I happened to come across in a second hand bookshop (except for Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which I got from a friend.)

Although I’d like to do a start-to-finish read of her at some point, I’m quite happy to have read these four in the order that I did because Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was actually somewhat different from the other three. It still felt very much like a Barbara Comyns novel, but it was much starker and more grotesque. I wonder whether it would have unsettled me too much to look for her other work right away, if I had read it first. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Juniper Tree, both unusual novels with elements of this same stark vision and bizarre perspective, seem positively gentle compared to Who Was Changed, and even The Vet’s Daughter doesn’t get as strange and violent.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is about a small village in England and the internal struggles of a particular family (the wealthiest) in the village, but it’s also about a mysterious illness that suddenly affects many of the inhabitants. I’ve lent my copy to a friend so I cannot provide verbatim any of the fantastic descriptions of the villagers becoming ill and going crazy. It’s incredible. Comyns makes it all so horrible and violent. And then once the villagers figure out what’s happening, they burn someone’s house down. That scene is one I will not likely forget soon.

For all of the book’s fantasy, Comyns’s omniscient third-person narrator is straightforward and unemotional, maintaining an almost frighteningly clinical distance from what’s going on. The narrator passes over many of the novel’s gruesome details quite quickly, changing subjects from one sentence to the next. Often the narrator juxtaposes something outrageous with something benign. This narrative technique had a way of making me gasp out loud, like I might be the only one noticing how utterly amiss everything was in this little village. I love that Comyns brought me through the text this way.

Comyns has a way of creating characters with a lurking monstrous side. The father in The Vet’s Daughter and the mother in The Juniper Tree, for example, but in Who Was Changed it is hard to find a character without this monster-within. The grandmother is an absolute caricature (wonderfully done) of an obese tyrant. The father a weakling with a pathologically selfish side. Even Emma, the oldest daughter of the family and the person we are meant to find the most sympathetic, has a way of making unsettling statements and misunderstanding vital situations. The village and the family and the story all end up feeling like a carnival somehow, or a gruesome fairytale, and yet as a reader I was incredibly attached to what was happening. It’s fascinating to me how she manages (and she’s done this in each book) to both reflect and distort reality.

With each book of hers I read, I become more and more impressed with the uniqueness of her style and fictional vision. All of her books are available but several have been re-issued lately (she wrote most of them in the 50s and 60s) and so it feels like the world is going through a little Barbara Comyns revival. I hope this is the case, and I hope it continues.